The novel with which Fitzgerald won Zelda, This Side of Paradise, is usually praised for qualities that pin it closely to an exact moment in American life. Later readers are apt to come to it with the anticipation of an archeologist approaching an interesting ruin. Its publication is always considered to be the event that ushered in the Jazz Age. Glenway Wescott, writing for his and Fitzgerald’s generation, said that it had “haunted the decade like a song, popular but perfect.” Social historians have pointed out that the college boys of the early twenties really read it. There have been public arguments as to whether or not the petting party first occurred when Fitzgerald’s novel said it did or two years earlier. Anyone reading the novel with such interests will not be entirely disappointed. One of the responsibilities it assumes, especially in its first half, is to make the hero, Amory Blaine, report like a cultural spy from inside his generation. “None of the Victorian mothers—and most of the mothers were Victorian—had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed.” “The ’belle’ had become the ’flirt,’ the ’flirt’ had become the baby vamp.’” “Amory saw girls doing things that even in his memory would have been impossible; eating three-o’clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafes, talking of every side of life with an air half of earnestness, half of mockery, yet with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down.” The “moral let-down” enjoyed by the postwar generation has given the work its reputation for scandal as well as for social realism.
Today, the novel’s young libertines, both male and female, would not shock a schoolgirl. Amory Blaine turns out to be a conspicuous moralist who takes the responsibility of kissing very seriously and disapproves of affairs with chorus girls. (He has no scruples, it must be said, against going on a three-week drunk when his girl breaks off their engagement.) At the end of the story he is ennobled by an act of self-sacrifice in an Atlantic City hotel bedroom that no one would admire more than a Victorian mother. For modern readers it is probably better to take for granted the usefulness of This Side of Paradise for social historians and to admire from the distance of another age the obviously wholesome morality of the hero. Neither of these is the quality that saves the novel for a later time. What Fitzgerald is really showing is how a young American of his generation discovers what sort of figure he wants to cut, what modes of conduct, gotten out of books as well as out of a keen sense of his contemporaries, he wants to imitate. The flapper and her boy friend do not actually pet behind the closed doors of the smoking room. They talk, and each one says to the other, unconvincingly, “Tell me about yourself. What do you feel?” Meaning, “Tell me about myself. How do I feel?” The real story of This Side of Paradise is a report on a young man’s emotional readiness for life.
The only interesting morality it presents is the implied morality that comes as a part of his feelings when the hero distinguishes, or fails to distinguish, between an honest and a dishonest emotion. The highly self-conscious purpose of telling Amory Blaine’s story was, one suspects, to help Fitzgerald to discover who he really was by looking into the eyes of a girl—there are four girls—or into the mirror of himself that his college contemporaries made. And the wonder of it is that such a self-conscious piece of autobiography could be imagined, presented, and composed as a best-selling novel by a young man of twenty-three.
The novel is very uneven, and full of solemn attempts at abstract thought on literature, war, and socialism. It has vitality and freshness only in moments, and these are always moments of feeling. Fitzgerald said of this first novel many years later, “A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.” It offers the first evidence of Fitzgerald’s possession of the gift necessary for a novelist who, like him, writes from so near his own bones, the talent that John Peale Bishop has described as “the rare faculty of being able to experience romantic and ingenuous emotions and a half hour later regard them with satiric detachment.” The ingenuous emotions most necessary to the success of This Side of Paradise are vanity and all the self-regarding sentiments experienced during first love and the first trials of pride. The satire visited upon them is often as delicate and humorous as in this picture of Amory at a moment of triumphant egoism: “As he put in his studs he realized that he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again. Everything was hallowed by the haze of his own youth. He had arrived, abreast of the best in his generation at Princeton. He was in love and his love was returned. Turning on all the lights, he looked at himself in the mirror, trying to find in his own face the qualities that made him see clearer than the great crowd of people, that made him decide firmly, and able to influence and follow his own will. There was little in his life now that he would have changed… Oxford might have been a bigger field.”
The ideas in the novel, unlike the tributes paid to a life of feeling, have the foreign country of origin and the importer’s labels still on them. Edmund Wilson said This Side of Paradise was not really about anything. “Intellectually it amounts to little more than a gesture—a gesture of indefinite revolt.” Toward the end of the novel Fitzgerald’s normally graceful sentences begin to thicken and “sword-like pioneering personalities, Samuel Butler, Renan and Voltaire,” are called in to add the weight of their names to Amory’s reflections on the hypocrisy of his elders. The best pages of the novel come early, where Fitzgerald was remembering in marvelous detail the scenes at Newman School and Princeton. Later in his life he would always find it easy to return to those adolescent years, when feelings were all in all. Bishop once accused him of taking seventeen as his norm and believing that after that year life began to fall away from perfection. Fitzgerald replied, “If you make it fifteen I will agree with you.”
The Fitzgerald novel, then, began in his acute awareness of a current American style of young life and in his complete willingness to use his own experience as if it were typical. The charm of his first stories and novels is simply the charm of shared vanity and enthusiasm for oneself as an exceptional person. Fitzgerald often persuades us that he was the one sensitive person there—on the country club porch or in a New York street—the first time something happened, or at the very height of the season. And when this ability to exploit his life began to succeed beyond his dreams, the only next step he could think of was to use it harder.
Charles E. Shain is President of Connecticut College. Previously he taught at Princeton University and Carleton College, where he wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, from which the selection in this book comes.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald by Charles Shain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, No. 15, 1961).